64. Ripped from the headlines
A decade after Meier de Haan painted Marie Henry nursing her daughter Léa in the dining room of the Buvette de la Plage, Paul Gauguin painted this. He lived in Tahiti then, thousands of miles away from Le Pouldu. De Haan was dead; Marie Henry had moved on. Yet the ghost of de Haan's painting haunted Gauguin.
You see it, right? The perspective is almost the same: the viewer is standing in the same relation to the nursing mother in both paintings. Both women cradle the infant in their left arms. In both paintings our eye goes to the mother's neck, the line of her jaw; both paintings emphasize her torso and her lap. She is absorbed in her child, unconcerned about any observers. Gauguin and de Haan's nursing mothers are not twins, but they are sisters.
This was a choice, and I would argue a conscious one. Gauguin, father of five children with his wife Mette and of other children with Tahitian women, had seen women nurse. He had seen paintings of women nursing in the Louvre; he had been in village churches and seen statues of the Virgin with Jesus at her breast. The image that he echoed here was specific to de Haan's portrayal all those years ago. De Haan's depiction of Marie Henry had lodged in Gauguin's mind. On this rough burlap canvas he painted his own version of it.
The images have important differences: Marie Henry is dressed, Gauguin's nursing mother is not. The name of Gauguin's model has not come down to us, or the name of her infant. She is sitting against an abstract background watched over by two other anonymous women. The painting is less a record of a moment than it is a record of an idea about women and otherness. It tells us almost nothing about these specific women, but may be able to tell us a great deal about how Gauguin thought about them.
Back in Le Pouldu, we know more specifics. We know Marie Henry's name. We know the name of her child, and we know where they were sitting when de Haan captured her likeness: just in front of the mural that de Haan had painted on the dining room's west wall. We see the curve of the haystacks over her left shoulder.
We can even, based on the photographic evidence, use de Haan's painting to deduce specific historical information: the mural must have been leaning against the wall, so that the haystacks would have been at about shoulder height for a seated woman, when de Haan set up his canvas. De Haan's Maternité belongs to the long tradition of paintings of women and their infants. But it is also a likeness of a specific woman and baby in a specific place at a specific time. And it is a document of a particular relationship that was bounded by time and place, and that was mutual. We know that de Haan gave Marie Henry the painting, and that hung it in her bedroom. It stayed with her until her death in 1945, and her family--her daughter Léa, pictured in it, and Ida, the daughter than she had with Meier de Haan--only sold it in 1959.
But why are we talking about this today? Well. When Maternité II was sold at auction for the first time in 1904, it brought 150 francs. In 1900, a kilogram of bread cost about 40 centimes. An annual subscription to Le Temps, one of the major Paris daily papers, would cost you 54 francs. Need a bicycle to go to the bakery and the news stand? A serviceable one would set you back about 200 francs.
Yesterday, at Christie's auction of the late Microsoft founder Paul Allen's collection, Gauguin's Maternité II sold for $105,730,000. I did not misplace any decimals. The 2022-23 budget for my hometown, population 250,000, is $627.6 million, with $165.1 million of that reserved for capital expenses. Basketball player LeBron James' 2022 two-year contract extension with the Los Angeles Lakers is worth $97.1 million.
This 37¼ x 24 in (94.7 x 61 cm) piece of burlap covered on one side in oil paint was valued at auction at a little less than the capital expenses--maintaining buildings, roads, and utilities--of a mid-sized American city, and a little more than two playing years in the life of a brilliant athlete.
The art market: it's quite a place.